Fifty Shades of Grey is a horribly mediocre film.

by Steve Pulaski

The film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey is exactly the kind of film that makes me seriously question the tastes of the mainstream and the approach Hollywood utilizes in adapting bestselling novels into films. To cut through all the evasive language and answer those reading this review, Fifty Shades of Grey is a horribly mediocre film, timid and unsatisfying in its depiction of the bondage and BDSM subculture, with dialog and acting that are frequently astonishing in how awful they can be. Having never read the E.L. James’ trilogy, I, the ignorant, take a look at the film adaptation and have to question, like I did with the film adaptations of the Hunger Games trilogy and ask myself, “is this really the root of the phenomenon?”

Just by watching Fifty Shades of Grey, an ignorant soul has to assume that this is a muted representation of the book. A juicy, erotic book about bondage, which was said to describe sex acts in explicit detail, had to have been more graphic than what we got on-screen, and the characters, I sincerely hope, had to be more than empty vessels, as they were in the film at hand. What we get for the film version of the book isn’t a piece of work without merit, but a drearily boring and safe depiction of a topic and a culture that deserve more respect, especially given this film being the mainstream break for both.

Fifty Shades of Grey
Directed by
Sam Taylor-Johnson
Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle
Release Date
13 February 2015
Steve’s Grade: D+

The story follows Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a depressingly ordinary college girl, who goes through life without many close friends outside her roommate leads an existence of convention and routine. This changes when her roommate asks her to interview Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), an elusive, single billionaire who’s consistent protection of his private life has warranted great question. From the moment she sees him, Anastasia is smitten with everything about him because he is everything she isn’t: bold, confident, unafraid, and suave.

One can tell just from the way Christian looks and speaks to Anastasia, having great patience and acceptance with her that he admires her for her own traits as well: she’s simple, frightened, vulnerable, and just the kind of girl he’s looking for. The two quietly hit it off, with Christian requesting simple things like coffee outings and simple hangouts before going through one of his many periods of being standoffish and confusing to Anastasia. Eventually, he reveals his motives; he’s looking for a sexual relationship with no commitments and no conventionality in terms of going on dates. He wants sex and he wants it his way, proposing a contract to Anastasia in hopes she will become the submissive to his dominant, in which she’ll stay at his spacious penthouse on weekends to engage in wild sexual escapades.
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I love the idea of Fifty Shades of Grey being made into a film because it would make a topic that is so taboo and mainstream and force it into the limelight, optimistically making it something that more people would talk about. I was immediately frustrated when it was given an R rating, greatly limiting the impact of its presumably explicit sex scenes and resulting in a failed opportunity to also make the NC-17 more commercial and profitable (but that’s another argument). To begin with, the sex scenes are a hair more graphic than what mainstream America is used to, but they’re depressingly ordinary compared to what kind of emotions usually arise from BDSM activity. There isn’t a lot to say with the scenes, surprisingly, and that’s the biggest issue with them from the start.

Johnson and Dornan fit their roles pretty well, in terms of accentuating the traits they need to and giving off the kind of vibes they need to as well. However, the two completely lack any kind of chemistry together. Maybe that’s intentional, again alluding to Grey’s refusal to make this a relationship of any conventionality, but it’s difficult to get wrapped up in the sex scenes when both parties seem disinterested in one another and bored. Furthermore, the acting of the two leads varies from acceptable to incredibly poor and contrived, leading to the final nail in the coffin being the film’s dialog.

Fifty Shades of Grey may go down as one of the most poorly-written films of the year in terms of having singular lines of dialog that are capable of producing unintentional laughs and sneers. Lines like “laters, baby,” which Grey always says to Anastasia, “I’m fifty shades of f*ck*d up,” as said by Grey, and a multitude of others that need greater context are uttered to cringe-worthy effect. Combine the element of brazenly bad dialog with unremarkable sex scenes and an an overall vapid portrayal of a sex subculture, and you have a film that flatlines when it should captivate and stun.

The film, as I stated, isn’t without its own merit. The cinematography is bleak but paradoxically inviting, with Seamus McGarvey making the color gray about as vibrant as it can be, so much so that infusing other colors effectively changes the mood of the audience as it does the characters. The contrast established between the characters functioning in the outside world and the characters functioning behind clothes doors is present, and McGarvey communicates that very well through look and tone, with screenwriter Kelly Marcel (writer of Saving Mr. Banks) effectively doing it in dialog. Furthermore, the way the film creates a world established by these two characters that is left mostly uncorrupted by the opinions and interference of outside forces also helps it in establishing a level ground in its own world. But such features are secondary to the primary features, which should’ve been a lot more fleshed out and detailed than what was provided in a lackluster portrayal of an exciting idea.